The Priority in Iraq: Forestalling a Humanitarian Crisis

Michael E. O’Hanlon and Roberta Cohen
Roberta Cohen Former Brookings Expert, Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

April 14, 2003

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With the Saddam Hussein regime gone, the first priority in Iraq now must be to forestall a humanitarian crisis that threatens to envelop the country in a very short time.

Hunger, which is already developing in parts of Iraq, could turn to famine if the food distribution system that existed before the war is not quickly reactivated. That system relied on 44,000 offices throughout Iraq, mostly run by the Iraqi government, to distribute 400,000 metric tons of food brought in each month under the United Nations oil-for-food program, which is now suspended. These distributions sustained some 60 percent of Iraq’s 24 million people. The number of people dependent on relief supplies is likely to be even greater now, owing to war destruction and to the wave of looting, arson and general chaos that swept through the country in the aftermath of the regime’s fall.

U.S. and international humanitarian agencies have stockpiled large amounts of food in neighboring countries but so far it has been possible to bring in only small shipments owing to the lack of security in Iraq. And just bringing food into Iraq is not enough. The complex distribution system, now in a state of collapse, must be restored in order to reach large segments of the Iraqi population.

Food is not the only problem. Iraq’s medical and water distribution infrastructures are also in crisis. On April 11, the International Committee of the Red Cross reported that the medical system in Baghdad had “virtually collapsed.” The ICRC has issued a desperate appeal to coalition forces to protect hospitals and water supplies. Thirty-nine of the 40 hospitals or clinics in the city have been looted or forced to close. Hospital staff in Baghdad are too frightened to report for work. In Basra, Iraq’s second largest city, drivers of water trucks have feared to venture into many parts of the city, exacerbating a growing public health problem resulting from people drinking contaminated water.

The prompt restoration of law and order is the key to resolving the crisis and avoiding more dire consequences. It is also key to achieving a meaningful victory in the war, for an invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam but worsened the plight of the Iraqi people would incite anger against the United States throughout the Muslim world—quite possibly aggravating, rather than alleviating, the global terrorist threat.

This is a task for which the Pentagon’s war plan clearly did not make adequate preparation, despite warnings by both other administration officials and humanitarian organizations. Last week’s looting quickly moved beyond the symbols of the fallen regime to strip bare hospitals, hijack Red Cross ambulances, plunder food stocks from World Food Program warehouses, ransack the offices of the United Nations Children’s Fund, and vandalize water pipelines and electric generators. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s attempt at dismissal of this wave of violence as something almost inconsequential—”a period of untidiness”—did the Administration a serious disservice.

Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, the United States as occupying power (whether it likes the label or not) is bound to ensure security and to minister to the needs of the population. The White House’s humanitarian relief strategy, made public well before the military campaign, promised to “promptly provide aid and rapidly restore services” after military action as well as “facilitate early secure access” and “humanitarian space” for relief agencies.

The Bush Administration now has only a short time in which to make good on these promises. To date, chaotic conditions on the ground have made it impossible for the international staff of United Nations agencies and most non-governmental organizations to enter Iraq beyond the port of Umm Qasr. Until an Iraqi police force can be reconstituted, the United States must enforce security either through the diversion of its own forces or by promptly enlisting NATO or others for the task.

Some in the U.S. military would resist such a role for coalition forces at present, on the grounds that they are not yet numerous enough or properly prepared to police Iraq. In fact, CENTCOM explicitly resisted the mission during the early phases of the mayhem late last week. But their view is not compelling. First, most U.S. troops today get at least some training in peacekeeping and policing. Second, while regular troops may not specialize in taking fingerprints or deposing witnesses, they are very good at doing armed reconnaissance patrols through cities and confronting threatening individuals. Such a basic infantry soldier task is not a bad approximation of the kind of policing that is most needed in Iraq today. Third, while combat forces obviously must finish defeating Saddam’s regime and must also worry about force protection, they have enough people in Iraq today to do a considerable amount of policing simultaneously. We need simply to prevent mass anarchy while fostering the provision of relief and medical care.

Fortunately, when viewed in this light, the argument for restoring order in Iraq is so compelling that CENTCOM and Secretary Rumsfeld seem to agree. Even as they have publicly resisted the mission, they have increasingly directed more U.S. and U.K. forces to conduct it. But the job is far from done, and further speed is of the essence.